Registration of non-Roman Catholic marriages began in Ireland in 1845, but the full registration system only came into operation in 1864, when all births, marriages and deaths began to be registered. These dates are relatively late, at least when compared with the starting years of the civil registration systems in other parts of what was then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Full registration was introduced in 1837 in England and Wales and in 1855 in Scotland.
In Ireland, civil registration was a by-product of the Victorian public health system, and was based on the Poor Law, an attempt to provide some measure of publicly funded relief for the most destitute. Between 1838 and 1852, 163 workhouses were built throughout Ireland, each at the centre of an area known as a Poor Law Union. Workhouses were situated in large market towns, and the Poor Law Union comprised the town and its catchment area, with the result that in many cases the Unions ignored many existing parish and county boundaries. This had consequences for research, as we will see below. Click here for an interactive map, showing all placenames contained in each Poor Law Union.
In the 1850s, a large-scale public health system was created, based on the areas covered by the Poor Law Unions. Each Union was divided into Dispensary Districts, with up to seven Districts per Union. A Medical Officer, normally a doctor, was given responsibility for public health in each District. When registration of all births, deaths and marriages began in 1864, these Dispensary Districts did double duty as Registrar's Districts: a Registrar now became responsible for collecting the registrations within this District. In most cases, the Medical Officer for the Dispensary District now also acted as the Registrar for the same area. The superior of the Registrar was the Superintendent Registrar, responsible for all the registrars within the old Poor Law Union. Marriages were treated somewhat differently, with the local clergyman keeping separate religious and civil registers, acting as a proxy for the Registrar.
The day-to-day system worked as follows: when a local registration volume was complete, the Registrar forwarded it to his superior, the Superintendent Registrar, who made a copy of this register and every three months forwarded all copies from his Union for the preceding quarter to the GRO in Dublin. The copies were then used to create centralised all-Ireland indexes. These indexes and their corresponding copy registers formed the basis for all research in the records until the advent of digitisation.
It is important to keep in mind that this system created two sets of records, the original unindexed registers, held locally by the Superintendent Registrar, and the transcribed copy of the original, in the possession of the Registrar-General, indexed island-wide and available for public research.
Because of its origins, responsibility for registration in the Republic of Ireland rested with the Department of Health until 2004. The Civil Registration Act of 2004 then transferred responsibility for the GRO to the Department of Social Protection, with local Registrars in each Health Service Executive Area still part of the Department of Health. Although the current registration system is completely digitised, the historic local registers are still held by the Superintendent Registrars. The General Register Office public research facility, at Werburgh Street, Dublin 2, D08 E277, has the master indexes to all 32 counties up to 1921, and to the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland after 1921, as well as digital copies of the centrally-copied historic registers. These digital copies are online at www.irishgenealogy.ie. The administrative headquarters of the GRO is now at Convent Road, Roscommon.
The General Register Office (Northern Ireland) is part of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Its research room, at Colby House, Stranmillis Court (off Stranmillis Road) Belfast BT9 5RR, has full digitised access to all registrations in what is now Northern Ireland from 1845/1864 to the present. Its historic registers are online at https://geni.nidirect.gov.uk.